The most common mental disorders in the United States are anxiety disorders. This includes general anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder, all of which “cause people to experience distressing and frequent fear and apprehension,” even in safe environments. Although some individuals who live with an anxiety disorder receive treatment, many of them still struggle with feelings of shame surrounding their disorder.
In writing about the association between shame and anxiety, PsychCentral says that “[s]hame is a heightened state of self-consciousness that can result in feelings of self-loathing. It can be triggered by doing something you perceive as wrong or socially unacceptable, or feeling as though you’re unworthy of positive treatment or benefits.”
For example, in social situations, those who have social anxiety disorder (SAD) often fear being judged. In this case, shame arises from being afraid of doing something that is socially inappropriate which will reflect badly on them. But shame can go further than that: it can cause those who have anxiety disorders to loathe the fact that they have anxiety.
On a personal note, I struggled with social anxiety disorder for many of my teenage years. However, I didn’t simply see this disorder as something to work through; I thought there was something wrong with me that needed to be fixed. It wasn’t until I began going to therapy at the age of eighteen that I realized I wasn’t alone in experiencing an anxiety disorder. There were other people just like me who understood.
As a researcher in areas such as vulnerability and shame, Brené Brown states the following: “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging…I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure.”
When I first began attending therapy, my therapist encouraged me to look up stories and articles from people online about their experiences with anxiety. Doing so helped me feel less alone and ashamed about having anxiety, therefore lessening my anxiety. But why do people with anxiety disorders feel shame in the first place?
Hope to Cope explains that “[v]ictims of trauma and abuse are especially susceptible to toxic shame. But it does not take an abusive childhood or severe misfortune to experience dysfunctional levels of this emotion. More often, it results from shaming messages we receive from parents, teachers, other authorities, and peers that we internalize and tell ourselves over and over.”
So, if shame is shaped by society, how do we fix that?
Mindfulness Muse reminds us that “[w]hen you learn to think about anxiety differently and respond to it in the moment with greater intention, it exerts less powerful control over your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.”
There has been a push in recent years to destigmatize having mental disorders, with most of these efforts focusing on implementing therapy and medication. But what if we began to normalize having anxiety? What if—instead of telling those who have anxiety disorders that they need to fix themselves—we remember that there is nothing wrong with having an anxiety disorder? And what if we support those who have anxiety disorders by reminding them that they are not alone?
It can be difficult to live with a mental disorder. It can be even more difficult to figure out how to develop a positive relationship with a mental disorder. Perhaps if we began to push for normalizing anxiety disorders, the number of anxiety disorders would decrease.
If you or someone you know struggles with an anxiety disorder, reach out for help:
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